This is the reflection paper I wrote for a class called "Wilderness Spirituality" that I took back in May. We were required to read and write about several books on classic Christian disciplines, monastic life, and scripture, followed by a week at a Monastery in New Mexico. Now that a few months have passed, I just reread my paper and I realize what a long-term, positive impact this class had on my spiritual and emotional health. I decided to share my reflection paper for those that might be interested in learning more about what Catholicism, monastic community, and classic Christian disciplines have to offer us "outsiders!"
Reflections on my experience at “Christ in the Desert” Monastery
“The monks are praying now.” I say this as a comfort, lying in the dark silence of my bed, trying to talk my lazy self into getting up. It’s five a.m. our time, which is four a.m. in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Christ in the Desert monastery nestles among the Chama Canyon wilderness. Time for vigils. Dennis and I are back in our “real world” now, and have been for a little over a week. The adjustment wasn’t exactly easy, but it wasn’t any harder than I expected. Our week in the wilderness was a much-needed time of silence and spiritual growth. I’m having a hard time organizing my thoughts, and the effects of the week have been multilayered, unfolding with various levels of meaning each day. I haven’t been getting up at 5 in the morning every day since we got back, but It’s time to process how my week in the wilderness has formed me. Fortunately (I guess), I am required to write fifteen pages about my experience. This should help me sort through my thoughts and feelings.
As we all know, life is harried. We never have enough time in the day to do all the things we wish. I think the silence and slow pace of the monastery were accentuated by the fact that this crazy busy pace was especially real for me in the weeks leading up to the trip. There were, of course, papers to write and final exams to study for and take. But I also had to plan for a trip that would involve my whole family of five. This included things like shopping, packing, finding a pet-sitter, and making arrangements for my children to miss a whole week of school. Then, of course, there were all those books to read and papers to turn in before the trip. Lastly, there was the financial burden of the trip, getting the kids to my parents who live in Mississippi, paying the pet sitter, time off work, and other odds and ends that come up when one travels. There was a spiritual lesson in this busy time, of course. Personal and spiritual growth do not come free and easy. I must be intentional about pouring into my own spiritual health, as everything else good in life and ministry flows out of that investment.
I so enjoyed the readings for this class. As I look back over my notes from them, I want to go back and read these books again, re-experiencing the inspiration offered by them all. I also recognize some themes recurring through every reflection, a few areas in which I was especially wrestling or that resonated with me. I felt a desire to make time for more prayer and scripture reading in my life, especially through praying the hours. I knew that I had some time-wasting habits that I needed to break. About midway through the readings and responses, I started to feel a little indignant. This was about when I started reading Arthur Boers’ book Day by Day These Things We Pray. I don’t think it was his writing in particular that frustrated me, but the fact that I had spent three days straight reading about spiritual practices. I was equal parts inspired to make some changes and irritated that I was going to have to give up some personal indulgences. That is what they call “conviction,” I think. I was also afraid that I was either incapable of making changes, or that even if I did make them, God might not prove enough. Could God’s word really satisfy like that extra hour of sleep, or those late-night ice cream and sitcom binges? I also doubted that I could make time for daily prayer rituals. I knew from experience that praying the hours was beneficial for me, but I didn’t want to set myself up for frustration. I knew that I wanted to pursue practices like silence and contemplation, but how could I faithfully practice these disciplines when I was so busy with other obligations, especially my family? Still, I found a lot of peace and hope within these readings, I highlighted each book heavily, knowing that I would return to it again and again for inspiration.
One day soon, I’d especially like to reread Benedict’s Rule, now that I’ve been to the monastery and can better understand some of the practices he describes. I found it inspiring, but was a bit put off by what seemed like the harshness of it. I think I would find it much more meaningful now that I’ve seen these practices in person, and they aren’t as harsh as they sound. Benedict’s Rule, I hear, is actually quite lenient compared to some of the others of its time.
At “Christ in the Desert” Monastery
I love being out in the wilderness. We go camping with our kids as often as possible, and I’ll sometimes go alone out to Cameron Park, which has 15 miles of trails and is only about a ten minute drive from my apartment. I experience God most frequently through nature. I read once that spending an hour outside in the wild has some of the same effects as taking an antidepressant. That is a pretty steep claim, but I believe it. Part of it is getting out of my everyday environment and escaping my obligations, and part of it is getting away from people and listening to what God and my own spirit are trying to tell me. Also, I think there is something inherent in nature that speaks to me, heals me, teaches me. I believe that, as it is God’s creative work, we are meant to commune with nature daily. I often lament that we as a society have not only built lives that make this impossible, but also found a way to destroy so much of creation in the process.
Arriving in the desert was a little unnerving for me. Most of my mountain experiences in life were with the Great Smoky Mountains, which are lush and green this time of year, with tall, near ancient trees all around. The New Mexico landscape is so arid, and the mountains are red and rocky and look like they could crumble at any minute. The plants were small, less green, and feisty looking. One can tell by looking at them that they must fight for survival in this dry terrain. I was surprised that I didn’t immediately fall in love, as others seemed to. I visited the river on Tuesday morning, to visit with the geese I had been hearing since we arrived. They were there on the banks, honking away. I felt like an outsider imposing on a family reunion, so I went back to my room to finish getting ready for midmorning prayers.
What I did immediately come undone over was the silence out there, the disconnection I felt from the rest of the world. I needed that so much. Between the journaling and the book reflection, I wrote forty pages in four days while at the monastery. This is a luxury I just cannot afford at home. Without the responsibilities of home, I had time to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that bubbled up, and I was intentional to not run from them.
The days at the monastery were blessedly slow, though I don’t think the monks feel that way. They do have a lot of responsibility packed into each day. It seems they are always praying, working, eating, or studying. I have a newfound respect for the cloistered life. I always respected it, but seeing it in person made me love it. I was surprised at how “human” the monks are. I know that this is probably cliché, but after reading the rule, I expected them to be more silent, serious, and sad, as if they were doing some kind of penance for existing. They most definitely were none of those things. They were much less legalistic than I expected. Their life together was less about following a bunch of extra rules and more like a reordered way. They didn’t have more rules, just a completely different set altogether. Instead of trying to keep their individual lives afloat and deal with the pressures of an outside job, their self-limitations looked more like a set of parameters that cleared the way for them to live in community with one another and communion with God. This inspired me.
I have found that the ministry world is not exempt from pressure to climb the proverbial ladder of success. While the set of aspirations might be different from the corporate world, the environment still creates an insatiable desire to be smarter and do things bigger and have a ten-year plan that will create measurable effects. The monks have committed to living a small and faithful life, one of which it is unlikely anyone outside the monastery will ever know. It is enough. It is enough to serve their immediate neighbors, devote themselves to God, and pursue every aspect of their life as kingdom work. Can I say this about myself? I think that, having seen it exemplified in person will help me understand and pursue this more. In her book The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris draws many parallels between the monastic life and small town life. Having grown up in a small town, I can vouch for that. Though small town folk, as well as monks I’m sure, can still fall victim to a “race to greatness” mindset.
To an un-invested onlooker, the chanting seems odd. It is so monotonous, and the texts (particularly the Psalms) are often so obscure that it seems pointless to meditate on them at all. I was sure on the first day that I’d never catch on to the system. However, by the last day and after I returned home, I was shocked at how much of it I had integrated into my mind. My first thought each morning for days was “Oh, Lord, open my lips.” I had chants stuck in my head like they were the latest pop song. Even as I read the Psalms now, I’m surprised at how much more familiar they became after just a few days of praying them with the monks. My relationship with scripture has always been complicated. I suspect that most honest believers would say the same thing. I learned from the monastic traditions that I was making quite a few mistakes in my personal reading. For one, if it doesn’t seem meaningful, I should read more often and not less. Scripture, like so many other things, takes on more meaning as I integrate it into my daily life. Also, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve been making all my life is that I’ve been reading scripture too fast. I must slow down, way down, and read it painfully slowly, line by line, perhaps over and over again. This way, it’s not just words on a page. I’m not reading for information. That would be a bit pointless, considering how many times I’ve read most of the texts in the Bible. I’m reading scripture to digest it and make it part of my being. One aspect of the reading at the monastery that I found most beneficial was the chanting, believe it or not. The forced slow pace, the constant back and forth of call and response, and the tedious note changes forced me to pay attention and helped me retain the texts. This is impossible to replicate at home, I think, but I found it a very valuable practice while at the monastery.
One place in which I could hardly contain my doubt was at the first mass I attended. To fully express the meaning of my experience here, I must make a confession. I am made up of about 90% doubt and 10% faith. The ten percent is enough to keep me holding on, but it’s really the ninety percent that sent me to seminary, I think. Many days, I’m not so sure I believe in all this stuff. I treasure my faith heritage and value the meaning it has given my life, but the foundational beliefs of Christianity, like Christ’s resurrection, prove too much for me sometimes. Watching the elaborate mass for the first time, I could not imagine carrying out that ritual every single day, as the abbot does. It seemed boring and tedious. I recognized its beauty, but I was more struck by the knowledge that these guys do this exact ceremony every morning of their lives, yet they still manage to look so reverent. I was also slightly offended that I couldn’t partake of the eucharist. If I really believed that those two items became the body and blood of Christ, I think I would want to offer it to everyone.
Somewhere between being blessed by the priest and the final organ note, I was overcome with awe. There aren’t appropriate words to express the spiritual connection that washed over me, but I must try. Suddenly, I believed in God more than I ever have before. I felt completely removed from my surroundings, yet unable to leave my seat in the chapel. It was a five senses-experience, and it seemed that everything meaningful in my life flashed before me – infused with even more meaning now. Everyone else filed out, and I sat in silence, staring at the crucifix in complete awe and adoration. It was a little uncomfortable to feel so out of control of my experience, to feel such intense emotion. I chose to sit with it instead of run, as I often do at home. I sat and reveled in the presence of God and my invitation to be there. Eventually, I felt it was time to leave the chapel, but I was still too emotional to go anywhere that I might see people, so I walked down to the river. I didn’t try to fight the strong emotions coming over me, but instead leaned into them, which is a scary thing. The mountains that I had felt suspicious of before were practically speaking to me, worshipping along with me. I saw the flock of geese again, as they alighted upon the river and turned toward the mountains with me, honking in unison. I don’t speak goose, but I think they were saying “There you are, Sarah. It took you a few days, but we knew you would show up.” Just like that, I felt my feet touch the ground again, and I decided to walk up the hill to continue my worship, in a different way, among friends at breakfast.
After the Monastery
Returning from the monastery was hard. I could have easily spent another week there, if needs at home hadn’t been pulling me back. I missed the slow rhythm of the days and the hours spent praying and meditating on scripture. The hardest part for me was adjusting back to the noise. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to go straight back to work, but Dennis and I both jumped straight back into life with three kids. As one can imagine, the noise level in our home is consistently high, even during calm moments. I briefly considered making our family practice eating in silence like the monks. I wanted to keep waking up at three thirty am, and I wanted to keep praying the hours. I really missed praying several times a day in community like we did at the monastery. I knew from experience that the aspects of the trip that felt most powerful to me would be impossible to reproduce at home long-term. This doesn’t mean that nothing I learned transferred, though. It just means I had a lot to process.
Often, figuring out my spiritual walk is a journey of deciphering between obligation and necessity. I could drown in the religious obligations set before me by others, but not all of them are helpful for my spiritual walk or for the Kingdom of God. Once I figure out what is beneficial, I can start to find a balance between spiritual needs and realistic expectations. My return from the monastery was a crash course in that practice. I found out that silence is an important practice, as well as scripture reading and praying the hours. Hours of time in a chapel and following the same routine every day for years? Not so much. Now that I’m home, I can’t deny the spiritual benefit of a couple of hours of silent contemplation every day, but I also can’t expect to attain it. Then, it becomes tempting to give up altogether. I must figure out what is reasonable and then be disciplined enough to pursue it.
I really wanted to make praying seven times a day work. I didn’t even try it for the first few days, because I knew that I would get frustrated. After a couple of days had passed, I set alarms on my phone for the seven prayer times. I knew that simply pausing to be aware of God’s presence could help me worship and refocus my work. It was frustrating, though, for several reasons. Each ding of my phone was a reminder that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, which was drop everything and spend the next ten to thirty minutes in prayer. It is great that I actually wanted to do that, but made me resentful of the obligations that prevented me from it. I have since settled into a more fluid yet still rewarding routine. I have a prayer book that contains morning, midday and evening prayers. I don’t always pray all three, and I don’t pray them at the same time every day, but I at least get in the morning prayer and scripture reading. It’s really convenient because I have a beautiful hardback copy, but the entire book is also online and I have downloaded an app that contains the prayers and links to the scriptures. (The book is called “Common Prayer: a liturgy for ordinary radicals.”) While the book has a Psalm segment, as well as readings from the New and Old Testaments, I’m hoping to implement more scripture into each day. Ideally, I’d like to start a plan that will help me read the entire Bible in a year or so.
I confess that I often find reading the Bible boring. I’m overly familiar with much of it, which makes it hard to focus. At the monastery, I was able to read large amounts of scripture each day. We prayed through most of the Psalms corporately, and all of the prayers were heavy with scripture. I learned to practice lectio divina, chewing on each verse long enough to get past the simple meaning of the words and dig into the spiritual nourishment contained within them. I understand now what it means to hunger for the word of God, but I was quickly reminded that it is much easier to satisfy with the “fast food” of other books and music. If the Bible is a plate of wholesome food that nourishes the soul, everything else is a donut – cheap, fast, momentary satisfaction. I am wired to crave the “donuts” of this world, but my true hunger is for something better.
One interesting and perhaps amusing thing I’ve learned from this experience is the importance of letting myself feel strong emotions. If something makes me sad, I let myself feel sad about it, instead of trying to distract myself. If I’m angry, I let myself be angry. This might come naturally for some people, but it never has for me. I think it’s because I have always been afraid of getting lost in negative emotions and not being able to escape them. This lesson came from a few different portions of the class. The book by Walter Brueggeman (Praying the Psalms) about the Psalms was the first. I’m thankful that we read it because it prepared me for the strangeness of reading such angry words in the chapel of the monastery, and with monks, no less! It helped me appreciate that canonized scripture has a whole book dedicated to the full range of human emotion. Reading the Psalms aloud was also helpful. I was uncomfortable chanting about my “enemies” being “ground to dust.” My level of discomfort helped me see how out of touch with my own feelings of anger I am. Everyone gets angry, and to deny that is to put it in a pressure cooker until it explodes in an unhealthy way. The final piece to this puzzle for me was conversations I had with some of my classmates. We talked quite a bit about the enneagram. I think it’s pretty trendy right now. I knew a little about my number (nine) and had read somewhere that nines have repressed anger issues. True to a person whose anger is deeply repressed, I said that this description didn’t fit me at all. I just don’t get angry often. I had reserved “The Road Back to You” from the local library months ago, and it became available while I was on the trip. I check it out when we returned and, inspired by conversations with classmates, read more about my personality type. That, combined with the normal frustrations of work, home, and community life taught me that I must do something counterintuitive and lean into my anger. I’ve been doing this by following the example of the Psalms and journaling my own angry feelings. I haven’t requested that God grind any of my enemies to dust, or bash their children’s heads against the rocks, like the Psalmists do. I have not been trying to talk myself down or make excuses for the person or situation that has made me angry, either. I just acknowledge my angry feelings, write my angry words, and let the process continue naturally. It turns out that healthily addressed anger is like a wave. It crests, then falls, and leaves as quickly as it came. Of course, this is a journey, and I would hate for the pendulum to swing too far and find myself losing my temper in unhealthy ways, or using scripture to excuse bad behavior.
The week before we left, I was listening to a podcast about writing and I learned about a Hindu concept known as “ambrosial hours.” According to this concept, in the 2-3 hours before everyone else has woken up, the atmosphere is clearer, less clouded by the energy of the masses going about their day. For Hindu practitioners, these hours just before sunrise are a time of special connection to God. While I’m not a follower of Hinduism, I think there is wisdom in this concept. The atmosphere may or may not get clouded with the energies of the bustling masses, but I know that my own mind does. I have a silly analogy that helps me better understand this. (Physical realities help me understand spiritual truths better, and I suspect I’m not the only one like this.) I live about two blocks from a donut shop. If I wake up early enough, I can smell donuts from my front porch. After about 6am, though, the smell gets covered up by I don’t know what, probably engine exhaust from the busy streets. The donuts are frying all day long over there, but I can only smell them from my courtyard if I’m up and out there before the rest of the world starts running. Similarly, the moment my day starts, I am wife, mom, student, neighbor, friend, daughter, employee, and more. If I can wake up before those obligations hit me, I am simply Sarah, daughter of God. If I can wake up in time to rest in that awareness for a while, all my other roles are put into place and given more meaning. After writing this paragraph, I am both inspired to start my day earlier and hungry for donuts. (In fact, I’m starting to see a donut theme in this reflection paper.)
Like other spiritual practices, when it comes to this, however, I must pursue balance. Waking up before 5am every day leaves me drained. I do not sleep well, so I must grab sleep when I can get it. After a few weeks of early rising, I need time to recover. After sleeping in until seven for a few weeks, I find myself staying up later and wasting time. This spiritual practice is like many others, and there is a tug of war between legalism and leniency, with a world of benefit at the sweet spot in the middle.
I’ve spent a great deal of time digging into the labora portion of ora et labora. It has come to my attention that our culture’s theology of work is really lacking. My life is full of daily practices that are not overtly spiritual, but they provide a steadying framework for each day. I spend a significant portion of each day washing after meals, doing laundry, and shuttling my kids to and from school. If I am intentional and present with these practices, they are an integral part of my spiritual formation. These chores happen with a daily rhythm not unlike that of a monk’s daily prayers. I can choose to resent the time spent doing the “dirty work,” or I can choose to be present and thankful for the gift of my family and the opportunity to serve them. Doing these daily chore practices has developed discipline in me and forced me to fight my tendency to escape the mundane, forfeiting all that is beautiful in it.
One area in which the monks seriously inspired me was commitment to a place and a people. I have a habit of constantly referencing “when we move.” I don’t want to buy anything too big, or settle in too far, because it’ll make it harder “when we move.” Who’s to say that we are going to move? Am I subconsciously doing this same thing in my relationships? “I don’t want to get too deeply attached to this person because that will just make it harder when we move.” Every time we do move, it is harder to start over with meaningful relationships, and it takes a long time to feel like an integral part of the community. This is detrimental to my personal call to ministry. I don’t think that I can be a truly effective agent for God’s kingdom in a place to which I am not committed long term. However, making a place home for the long term is so complicated these days, as we have so may options. When Benedict wrote his Rule, most people didn’t have the opportunity to travel or move far, so it was a given they would commit to a place for life, and they didn’t have the whole world from which to choose that place. Because we have traveled and moved so much, returning to my tiny Mississippi hometown would be difficult. I do have deep roots there and a community that has known me longer than anyone else. I love to visit home, but I don’t know if I could commit to it long term, or if there is even a place for me there anymore, especially as a woman in ministry who has left her conservative Southern Baptist roots behind. It’s not Dennis’ home, anyway. As a military kid, he doesn’t really have a place to call his hometown. This creates a dilemma because we now have literally the entire world from which to choose. We’ve lived in China and occasionally talk about moving back to Asia. I really do miss it. Dennis has family all over the country that we could move closer to. How does one pick a place? It would be nice if God would call down with a booming voice from Heaven, but God doesn’t seem to be into that anymore. Waco has been good to us, so maybe we should just stay here. It seems wrong to settle so far from family, though. This tension of place is one with which I wrestle daily. It would be a great release of burden if I could just take a vow to one community, like the Benedictine monks do to their monastery. Then I could quit feeling tossed around by my own changing desires. One day I want to move back home, the next day I want to move overseas again, and the next day I want to stay in Waco forever. I suppose I should commit myself fully to where God has me now, but remain open to letting God uproot me and take our family elsewhere. That sounds quite good on paper, but it is difficult to let myself fully love a people and a place when I’m afraid that I might have to leave them soon. It also makes it easier, on hard days, to let myself withdraw emotionally. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this Benedictine commitment to a people and a place is really quite important to effective ministry.
The monastic commitment to a people and a place also applies to my home life. It is a spiritual practice to submit myself to the commitment I’ve made to my family. Sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t have control over my schedule. When I start writing this paper, for example, but must close the computer to start my day with my children. I want to write, pray, meditate on scripture, and other such practices every day, and those are all good, holy things. I even need them for my spiritual growth and emotional well-being. However, my family comes first, and that’s not always easy. I know that the monks don’t marry or have families, but they do make a similar commitment to their cloister. Like I am with my family, the needs of the monastic community come first for the monks. We commit to be self-limiting in the name of service. This feels counterintuitive. We (especially those living within a monastic order), should be pursuing our relationship with God above all else, right? It’s not that simple. Part of that pursuit is submission to a community of believers, which doesn’t always look so spiritual. Sometimes it looks like cooking breakfast, or sitting up with the sick. Sometimes we sacrifice time with our private spiritual practice for this. Sometimes, however, we us those obligations as an excuse to grow lax in our pursuit of spiritual growth. For me, right now, I must work especially hard to discern between the two. Again, it’s about balancing the necessary and the practical. I do know this, though, it would be unreasonable for me to expect myself to spend the same kind of time in prayer and scripture as I did at the monastery now that I’m home. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and that’s ok. The kids won’t be little forever, and I will graduate from school eventually. That said, I could easily replace my current obligations with new ones and never make my prayer practices a priority. I should be constantly fighting for spiritual growth, and that means serving God within the capacity of whatever life stage I find myself.
We returned from the monastery two weeks ago, though I must confess that it feels a lot longer. I already need a refresher. I’m glad that this paper has made me work through my commitments and convictions. I plan to reread it from time to time. I’m also already in need of a return trip. I will use the books from this class to help me reconnect with what I’ve learned and encourage myself to continue growing. Before I went on this trip, I was careful to not let my expectations get too high. I heard such great things from every person who took “Wilderness Spirituality.” It seems that it was life changing for every one of them. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment. My concerns proved to be unnecessary. I must admit that I am now one of those people who rave about Christ in the Desert Monastery, Benedict’s Rule, and Dr. Gloer’s leadership. I will definitely continue the tradition of trying to recruit as many people as possible to take this class!